Road Trip: The Great Southwest Desert Art Tour
Among all the nation’s rich landscapes, the Southwest stands apart for drama and diversity. Sweeping desert vistas, criss-crossing cultures, deep history and rooted creativity make the region perfect for epic excursions–like this tour of singular art moments and destinations, from Texas to California. Ride along:
This once-sleepy railroad town changed forever when the artist Donald Judd arrived in 1973. After fueling up on coffee at The Sentinel, check out the artist’s converted-airplane-hangar home on the Judd Foundation (downtown, founded after Judd’s death) Block tour, then stop by the Chinati Foundation (museum Judd created at an abandoned military base) for a self-guided stroll among his signature 15 Untitled Concrete Works. Want even more art? The town’s ever-evolving artistic spirit comes to life in Ballroom Marfa’s rotating exhibitions. Evening calls for craft cocktails and rustic vibes at Marfa Spirit Co.
FEAST YOUR EYES ON SOUTHWESTERN ART WITH WILDSAM’S NEW PHOTO ALMANAC.
2 Santa Fe
Despite its petite size, Santa Fe is the third-largest art market in the country. And these days, a wide variety of art experiences flourish here. Three favorites:
SITE Santa Fe
One-time beer warehouse with sleek modern makeover showcases contemporary works by both big names and up-and-comers.
Institute of American Indian Arts Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
The museum features exhibits with works by alumni and students, making it one of the best places to see the present and future of Indigenous art.
Crawl through the refrigerator to another dimension at the neon fever dream known as the House of Eternal Return.
Bonus Stops: Form & Concept - Shiprock Santa Fe - Zizi Ceramics
3 Navajo Arts
The astonishing legacy and present-day creative momentum of Diné [a.k.a. Navajo] artists saturates the Southwest in hues of turquoise and jolts of high-energy geometry. While you can find Navajo work at galleries and trading posts far and wide, a dollar spent directly with artists does more for careers and communities on the vast Navajo Reservation. Every Friday, the Tuba City Flea Market rolls out an array of art, traditional crafts, food and serious socializing. [As one recent video blog says, “it’s where the aunties find the uncles.”] At roadside art and jewelry stands along the long, spectacular highways of the Navajo nation, haggling is expected, but prices are often already low.
Shash Diné EcoRetreat
Cameron Trading Post
From the Desert Southwest Road Trip Guide
4 Grand Canyon / Desert View Watchtower
The Grand Canyon. Arguably, the most famous single landscape in the United States. As historian Stephen Pyne says in his forceful book How the Canyon Became Grand, the chasm’s wild colors and unearthly dimensions reshaped Americans’ sense of beauty. There’s no more iconic place to ponder the vast void than Desert View Watchtower, a rough-edged masterpiece designed by Mary Colter, the region’s signature architect. Colter’s work here pays homage to ancient Indigenous lookouts; inside the tower, classic work by Native artists adorns the cylindrical walls. Notable: painter Fred Kabotie’s murals retelling the Hopi Snake Legend.
High Country Motor Lodge, Flagstaff
Shift Kitchen + Bar, Flagstaff
5 Phoenix Trifecta
Arizona’s fast-growing metropolis is an eclectic artistic hub. Three wildly different stops:
Is this place real? Off the highway southbound from Grand Canyon, visit this mesmerizing experimental “city,” designed by late architect Paolo Soleri. A small creative community here continues Soleri’s vision of sustainable urban life.
The Heard Museum
For nearly a century, the Heard has documented and interpreted Indigenous art, with a broad lens and evolving understanding. Through July of 2023, an exhibit on Hawai’ian surfing heritage sits alongside examinations of Southwest creativity from many cultures.
The Western masterwork of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this modernist gem now hosts workshops, film nights and tours.
6 The Tuscon Detour
Flanked on either side by Saguaro National Park, this rangy college town has a growing reputation for the arts. The Center for Creative Photography boasts an archive and exhibitions of national importance. For collectors in the same medium, Andrew Scott Gallery represents a select roster of photographers across a range of styles and eras. Dating to 1950 and anchored by the work of a painter who was born in Arizona Territory, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun connects today’s Southwest to the past; the Museum of Contemporary Art looks far afield into the future.
7 Joshua Tree
In the Mojave, outdoor art is at the mercy of the elements. But when it comes to the Noah Purifoy Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art, years of sun and wind only seem to be adding to the artist’s work. Born in Alabama in 1917, Noah Purifoy spent most of his working life in California. In the 1950s, he was the first Black student to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). His focus was found objects–art made from the detritus of life–beginning with works made from materials salvaged after the 1965 Watts Rebellion. From 1989 to his death in 2004, Purifoy lived in a trailer near Joshua Tree, where he erected more than 100 works of art across 10 acres. Many of these are large assemblages that include household objects–TVs and toilets, folding chairs and bicycles–arranged in surprising and thought-provoking ways amid the desert sprawl. Other nearby favorites: Andrea Zittel’s A-Z West compound (sign up for a tour) and the whimsical creations at Art Queen.
8 Palm Springs Architecture & Art
If–by some chance–these days and nights of beauty, distance and dust have you longing for a pool and a cocktail, Palm Springs can provide. Meanwhile, the longtime desert escape is full of midcentury modernist treasures–starting with the visitor center, a converted gas station designed by Albert Frey. Palm Springs Art Museum is worth seeing both outside (angular concrete design) and in (a vast collection exploring art, architecture and design). Spots like the glass-walled Frey House II offer tours.